Happily married for 40 years, a friend of mine from New York says that one of the (several) reasons his marriage has survived when so many others have crashed is a single, simple act of self-discipline. Every payday for more than three decades, he’s brought home six roses for his wife: sometimes three red, sometimes three pink, but always three white. Sometimes he forgets. A few times he’s fallen out of the habit for months or even a year; but sooner or later he always remembers and forces himself back into the habit.
I once told him that using words like “self-discipline” and “forcing” himself back into a habit can sound a lot less than romantic to outsiders. Some might even see the gift of flowers as old-fashioned and sentimental. But he just laughed. In the long run, he said – if you want a long run – it’s the little things that count in a marriage; the things that dot the vast sea of ordinary life with moments of meaning and beauty. Passion comes and goes, recedes and returns; love needs to be cultivated like a garden, carefully and constantly. Flowers aren’t magic, he said. They can’t mask insincerity, and they won’t get you off the hook if you’ve done something really stupid or bad. But it’s the habit, the simple discipline, of saying “I think of you; I remember you; I love you” without words, and more powerfully than words, again and again over time, that proves the feeling and cements one human heart to another.
So what’s the point of my story?
As with the persons we love, so with God. We can teach about God with eloquence and grace; we can pour all our strength into helping the poor; we can sing his praises with golden tongues – but unless we give our hearts to him in the habit of silent prayer, listening for his voice and placing ourselves in his presence again and again, whether we feel like it at the moment or not, then our faith is just an empty shell.
The one priceless, irreplaceable thing each of us possesses is time; once spent, we never get it back. When we offer our time and ourselves to God in the habit of prayer – what my friend would call a simple discipline – we show our love, and we also grow in love. And God will not be “out-loved;” the return on our investment will be a life of hope and meaning, grounded in the presence of God and the knowledge that he loves us and has the world in his hands, even when evil seems to abound.
These weeks between the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of Lent are part of what the Church in her liturgical year calls “ordinary time.” Life’s ordinary pressures and duties can sometimes seem more like a desert than a sea – dry, gray, and empty of any higher satisfactions. Thus we’re faced with a choice. We can grow each day more fatigued and bear the routine challenges of these “ordinary” weeks as a burden, or we can mark them with beauty by willfully, every day, turning our hearts to God in silent prayer.
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the postscript of this column. I said a few moments ago that my New York friend has spent 40 years bringing six roses to his wife nearly every payday – sometimes three red, sometimes three pink, but always three white. The secret is that his wife isn’t especially fond of white roses. But she’s very fond of getting them, because – even after 40 years of married life with all of its joys and pains; or rather, because of them — she’s very fond of him.
As with the persons we love, so with God. God doesn’t need our gifts, or our prayers, or anything at all from us. But like any other good Father – and he truly is our Father — he’s very fond of the children who choose to spend their time with him.
Just a thought for the coming weeks.
Archbishop Chaput is the archbishop of Philadelphia.